Matthew Gray, IT Strategy & Governance, Australian Pharmaceutical Industries
A solid IT strategic plan in today’s dynamic business environment can hinder, make, or break a business.
Through my enterprise IT roles within iconic retail, supply chain, and manufacturing organisations, I have participated in or led many conversations about IT strategies. These conversations invariably agree that an effective IT strategy should underpin our decision-making, inform our priorities, and strengthen our case for action. While businesses have embraced the discourse around the IT strategy, the common question perplexing our peers is what mobilises it, and will it be effective.
By definition, a strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve long-term objectives. Therefore, the IT strategic plan is a collection of actions, priorities, and decisions aimed at achieving the strategy. Yet for many of us, this doesn’t answer that burning question of how the strategy is formulated and does it measure up to what’s actually expected of us.
In my experience, strategic planning within the IT department often revolves around an extensive list of project initiatives, aimed at addressing current and future technology lifecycles. The reality of budget constraints succumbing to the priorities of short-term demands continues to drag our vision back towards tradition practices of upgrade management.
So, does this truly represent achieving a long-term objective, or is it simple window dressing on the same old same old? In fairness, with all things being equal you could probably answer yes. The collective list does achieve a long-term business objective; namely that we are still able to function as a business in the long-term.
Stakeholder feedback however, indicates this approach falls very short of introducing beneficial and sustainable change to our business. The question I propose: how would IT identify meaningful long-term objectives, and then develop the strategy to achieve them? My solution: ask more questions.
Strategic planning whether for business or IT is not an event, but a process to be fostered. It should be guided by reflection as much as it is striving for innovation. It requires challenging the team to think about what’s working and what’s not? Where do you see the industry changing and where it’s stagnating? You need the team to look outwardly at all sectors for inspiration or even disruption.
Basically, you are looking for a few ideas that might at first glance seem unorthodox or a stretch, but that you can hold up and see potential in. Potential that creates difference; potential that creates impact; or potential that could propel your business ahead of its competitors.
While it may just seem like creative licence at a point in time, the strategy should be an ever-evolving vision. Rather than aiming for an all-encompassing output, allow the process to explore and refine into more discrete and manageable considerations. As a starting point, target a core pillar or the key business differentiators that define your organisation. Focus the collective brain power on one area of business significance and identify opportunities that could re-shape or revolutionise that area in a meaningful way.
This might seem straightforward enough, but how do you get traditional IT folk to muster a creative thought bubble, when they’re used to structured thinking? I suggest the simplest option is to shape unstructured brainstorming with directed Q&A workshops. Shaping the discussion by using targeted questions, facilitates and dictates a more open and unconstrained thought process. The trick is to augment their natural approach to include more emphasis on why, how, and more importantly what else.
IT teams are often removed from the true face of the organisation so re-introducing the group to the actual business is an important first step. Beginning with the current state of the market, asking questions such as how do you stand amongst your competition, what they do well and what you do better, establishes a cognitive framework. At a more tangible level, scrutinising questions like what caused dramatic change in the past, what is disrupting us now, or what might disrupt us tomorrow, shifts the paradigm from theoretical perspective to outcomes and results.
Ultimately, the goal is to transition the discussion towards an innovation agenda. A great way to aid and direct the dialogue into this mode is with an if/could/would exercise: if only we could/had [something] it would mean/change [something].
This is a very practical and simplified approach that can help get your team working in a consistent and positive direction. It can support iterations of your IT strategy to organically drive a clearer direction for your planning.
Consider this as a possible start to your journey; a precursor to developing the thought leadership capable of embedding a mature future practicer. It will help inspire and guide your teams’ thinking towards an innovative problem solving culture, elevating IT from the department that keeps things running, to a partner that delivers long-term business value.